Understanding the Limitations of the UNFCCC

A look at the inherent challenges with international negotiations on "global" environmental issues
Dec 23, 2010 12:35 PM ET

Understanding the Limitations of the UNFCCC

by Todd Jones

Hey, guess what? “The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process has been restored?” I bet you didn’t know that. In fact, I bet that even if you had heard that the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations ended on December 10 (or even began in the first place the week before) this wouldn’t have been your conclusion.

The meetings in Cancún produced the “Cancún Agreements,” the legal status of which is yet to be determined, and the broad effect of which is merely to “bring the main Copenhagen outcomes formally under the UNFCCC.”[1] The two-track negotiating process which began in Bali and which was supposed to finish up in Copenhagen last year was extended again. There was no clear signal on whether or not the Kyoto Protocol will continue into a second commitment period, and there is no new agreement with mitigation obligations to replace it. We do now have a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, which can “guide the policies and actions of all Parties,” and agrees to “work towards identifying a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050,” as well as the formal recognition of mitigation pledges of several developed and developing countries (which unfortunately, even if they are met, will not alone bring about the shared vision). There were other concrete outcomes as well: a NAMAs registry, a Green Climate Fund, a Technology Mechanism, a Cancún Adaptation Framework, and a clear signal on REDD+.

Still, Cancún’s greatest success is that negotiations didn’t disintegrate completely—that any agreement was reached at all through the existing procedural infrastructure. Cancún represents a middle ground between the high of Bali and the low of Copenhagen. This doesn’t sound like the “beacon of hope” that UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figueres describes. So why would she make such a declaration?

For an answer, I reference my own experiences at these negotiations. In 2008, I attended two weeks of intercessional meetings of subsidiary bodies in Bonn, Germany, as well as the COP 14 meetings in Poznan, Poland as a member of “civil society,” a representative of my school’s own NGO.

Of the many things I learned, I consider the most important to be this: even the most distinguished, high-level representative from the most powerful Party or Group will literally run you down to get to free food.

But the second most important thing I learned is more relevant here, and it is this: semantics are everything. On first thought, I was frustrated by this. These negotiations did not appear to be about climate change mitigation and adaptation at all; they appeared to be about the Parties, and power. The Parties simply didn’t want to agree, and the extent to which going through the motions of these meetings was helping in that respect seemed insignificant.

On second thought, however, the importance of semantics in international negotiations on climate change seems to represent something more complicated. Semantics reveal, instead of obfuscate, the character of international climate change mitigation and adaptation. Annelise Riles, though she wrote 10 years earlier, shared many of my observations on international meetings on global issues. In her fantastic 1998 article entitled “Infinity Within the Brackets,”[2] she suggests that the “meaning” in international meetings is only revealed as patterns, when the entire body of work is assembled and can be considered at once, and that this is the unavoidable result of attempts in international negotiations and documents to “make visible” a vast heterogeneity of perspectives and localities. She interpreted the singular focus on semantics and technicality as an implicit practice, as an abstraction from reality that mirrors the abstraction embodied by a “global” negotiation or document. The “matter of concern,” climate change, is not lost as I first thought, rather it is distinct from individual meetings and documents; it doesn’t exist as a whole.

In other words, in international negotiations, the point is not to find an effective solution to climate change, but to find a solution in which everyone is ‘visible.’ This explains the tedious technicality of these meetings; it is the result of serving the vast heterogeneity of perspectives with a single solution. Though climate change is often described as a global problem, the issue of climate change cannot be accessed at the global level, and therefore progress or action on climate change cannot be the purpose of these meetings. As Ms. Riles suggests, it is the purpose of these meetings to build something (internationally) that can be taken apart later (locally), and it is only at this point that progress or meaning becomes concrete. This “progress” or level of action on the issue was implicit from the start. As a result, the lack of progress is often blamed on localities, on implementation, rather than the international process itself.

This also might explain why Figueres regarded these negotiations to be such a success.

Though this understanding of the international process perhaps helps us to appreciate the importance of semantics, it nevertheless leads to a similar conclusion regarding the matter of concern—the international process is unlikely to yield the results needed to address climate change and other “global” problems. This is precisely because it establishes ideals of “local,” “national,” and “global,” which are all constructed based on assumptions made at a self-contained international level, a plane separated from any real time or place. This is evidenced, for example, in the distinction made between developed (Annex I) and developing nations (non-Annex I), and the ongoing challenges surrounding this distinction. Perhaps these assumptions demand criticism along with the negotiations necessitated by them.

Bottom line? Both the frustrated citizen that can only see semantics and the thoughtful student of Annelise Riles can agree that the international level is not the level for action, and the distance between these negotiations and action on climate change is implicit and permanent.

Todd Jones is the manager of Green-e Climate, a certification program for carbon offset products. He can be reached at todd [at] resource-solutions [dot] org.

Visit the Green-e Web site to learn more about the nation's leading independent consumer protection program for renewable energy and retail carbon offset products.

[1] Akanle, T. et al. (2010). “Summary of the Cancún Climate Change Conference: 29 November - 11 December 2010.” Earth Negotiations Bulletin, COP 16 Final, Vol. 12, No. 498, 13 December 2010. Published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Pp.29.

[2] Riles, Annelise. (1998). “Infinity within the Brackets.” American Ethnologist 25(3): 378-398